The High Notes

Disclaimer: Potential spoilers for Saints Row: The Third, Quest for Glory 2 (yes really), Bioshock Infinite, Far Cry 3, Red Dead Redemption, Journey, and The Walking Dead

At the moment, I’m predominantly a console gamer, yet for many years it was all about the PC.

It’s not that I no longer enjoy PC gaming, just that where my consoles have stayed current with whatever games have been released, my poor laptop struggles to get much of anything to run. That doesn’t stop me grabbing bargains whenever a Steam sale comes around, and I have been fortunate enough to find a few games that don’t harken back to days of yore, when animation was but a flicker of stick figures on the corner of a schoolbook.

This isn’t a discourse on PC gaming by any stretch, but it’s there that my first solid memories of a soundtrack accompanying a game come from. I’m pretty sure that our SEGA Master System came after the PC, but it’s a really moot point. The opener is the fantastic Prince of Persia. Yes, I know I’ve done a callback to this game in gaming posts past, but that’s just the kind of thing it is. The fact that in the space of a few years, my gaming experience went from this CGA/PC Speaker to VGA/Adlib, for the very same game… well that shit leaves an impression. That would’ve been our 286, which I managed to push into running games it had no right to, such as X-Wing, and then later, Tie Fighter. Talk about games that benefited from a score.

Unknowingly, it were games that first introduced a young teenage me to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, since this was a time before the peasantry having internet capabilities. I know there was one track that showed up in both Lemmings (if you managed to get through a certain number of levels without failing), and also Loom when you got to Crystalgard for the first time – Dance of the Little Swans. I used to replay Lemmings from the start, just to hear that piece of music.Loom was also a special case, as your interactions with the game predominantly happened via a music playing staff- and I can’t think of another game besides Eternal Sonata that has music as prominent in the gameplay. Proteus maybe? And I’m still yet to check out Sound Shapes on PS3, so that might be another contender.

Going to Crystalgard played "Dance of the Little Swans" from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake.
Oh, what I could tell you about Loom.

I think iMuse was the system used by Lucasarts/Lucasfilm games that mixed bits and pieces, depending on where you were in the game. Monkey Island was especially good for that, transitioning between the different versions of the Woodtick theme, depending on which part of the town you were in at the time. The other ones that always grabbed me was the various tracks from the Quest for Glory games, especially that bit in Raseir after you’ve escaped from the cave with the genie, and it kicks in to that rising tune when the Katta from the resistance pops out and says “Hero Friend!” Yeah, that’s a memory that’s not soon leaving me.

No, they’ve never been as big as other soundtracks as far as general consumption by the public goes, though not for a lack of trying. I mean, Girl in the Tower anyone? I seem to remember it being pushed more than wikipedia suggests it was, but then I was a hardcore Sierra fan back then too (AND it was Prince Alexander, who shits all over Graham as a character). The Dig soundtrack also comes to mind as having very film-like qualities.

Sometimes it’s not a track specifically for the game, but the use of other music at the right time – the recent iterations of Fallout really shine with the old-timey music, and it not only adds to the kitsch atmosphere, but pushes you to explore the rest of swing as a genre. This is not my “Look how cultured I am” angle, but the ha, I’m a fool but I listen to the tracks for fun anyway. Bioshock Infinite is another great one, with fantastic covers of other songs, as well as the presence of the source material too. Music coming through the tears created by Elizabeth, that’s not only used to add to the character of the setting, but to foreshadow that the tears allow the people of Columbia to take knowledge of the future, and use it as they want.

Not long after I first got it, I was pretty sure that the likelihood of me finishing Saints Row: The Third was low. I loved the game from the very first mission, but those random calls that started waves of bad guys rolling at me were very difficult, very often – and I hated the Guardian Angel missions almost as much as I’d come to hate the Heli Assault ones. I still loved firing up the game and causing ridiculous amounts of destruction, though my favourite thing was always hopping in a fast car and spamming nitro to the custom playlist of “You’re the Best Around” and “Holding out for a Hero”.

The fact that those two songs featured so prominently toward the end of the game, both kicking in for specific missions, well… that was just fantastic. Murderbrawl with Killbane, and it plays “You’re the Best Around”? Brilliant! But oh man, that final mission when you’re racing up the building, being an awesome hero, and it starts playing “Holding out for a Hero” while you’re taking out STAG… literally got goosebumps.

FTL has some great music that really capture what you'd expect from a perilous space voyage - truly music to die by!
FTL’s soundtrack has an authentic perilous-space-voyage tone – truly music to die by!

Music is an amazing thing. Which one of you didn’t feel something when John Marston rode back to his ranch, and that song played. Whose smile didn’t burst out of their jaw when you got to the final gameplay piece of Journey (after the collapse in the snow), and just break your jaw in sheer bliss of enjoyment when you hear Austin Wintory’s Apotheosis? The last fight with Vaas plays the game’s main theme again, and there’s a huge difference between it showing up in the menu, and when you’re going through a bizarre landscape doing the same thing over and over, as though it’s a completely different song. The track in episode 5 of the Walking Dead game while you’re fighting your way through the hordes, to get to Clementine and the sick bastard who took her? It’s amazing.It’s such a vital part of the atmosphere – though admittedly it was the track “Alive Inside” that cropped up throughout each episode which consistently reinforced what an amazing soundtrack the game has.

There’s more to the sound of a game than just the backing track, but these days we tend to know our voice actors (Jennifer Hale, Raphael Sbarge, Brandon Keener, Nolan North, Nolan North, Nolan North, Nolan North, etc), and yes, the effects are there to, thanks to brilliant foley artists (if that’s what they’re even called in the game industry). Some of us do have and love our tracks. One of the games I was able to play on my horrible computer was the Back to the Future series by Telltale games. There was no better tone-setter than the musical cues that start off before the screen fades from black. I’m not hugely invested in Halo, but I admit that I get a burst of adrenaline when that theme song kicks in, and some of the tracks from ODST are simply beautiful, taking on tones of Joe Hisaishi’s work.

If you have a favourite track from a game, especially one that when working in concert with the gameplay and story, causes it to rise above what each alone is, hit the comments with all your “WHAT?? YOU MISSED THIS SONG. SAY CHOWDAH. I’LL KILL YOU!!” comments/threats.

Oh, and if you’re going to bring up something from Mass Effect, make it something other than Uplink, M4 Part 2, The Long Walk, The End Run, Mars, As They Enter, The Shadow Broker, Combat Troops, Stand Strong Stand Together, Leaving Earth, The Normandy Reborn, Legion, Suicide Mission, Infiltration (from the additional music, not the Kasumi DLC), Farewell and into the Inevitable, From the Wreckage, I Was Lost Without You, and The End… — Those are on my list.

Yeah, and “An End, Once and For All – Extended Cut version“.

Happy Listening, all.

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